History of The Society | History of St. Stephen's

The Society

No definite evidence exists as to when the Society was formed but local historians are united in thinking that it originated in pre-Reformation days as a Guild of Bellringers dedicated to this craft and to the religious, benevolent and social matters connected with it. It seems likely that its formation coincided with the building of John Shipward’s Tower in or about 1470. The practice, hallowed by long use, of placing “1620” upon the Society’s publications is very misleading. Apart from the fact that this is the date of the earliest Ordinances extant and that it was at one time erroneously thought that in this year James I had redeemed a promise on the part of Elizabeth I to grant the Society a Charter, the date has no significance to the Society.

Past Master H. E. Roslyn (1932), whose History of the Society is referred to in a footnote, refers to the promise of the grant of a Charter which Queen Elizabeth I is said to have made when visiting Bristol. The tradition is that she was pleased with the music of the bells and with the skill of the ringers. There is nothing surprising about this. In the course of a progress to Wales in 1574 the Queen established her Court at the residence of Sir John Young, the Great House, St. Augustine's (the Colston Hall now stands upon its site) from August 14th to August 20th. As Bristol was en fete for this, her only State visit, it would have been strange if the ringers had not made themselves heard at this short distance. Sir John, whose dower house was, incidentally, The Red Lodge, the present home of the Society, received a knighthood in recognition of his hospitality but the promised Charter was never granted. How the story, already referred to, that the promise was redeemed in 1620 originated, no one knows, but it is quite untrue. This inaccuracy is unfortunately repeated in the inscription upon the reverse of the Master’s badge. The badge is of comparatively recent origin, having been anonymously presented in 1885.

If the Society had remained as a conventional Guild of Bellringers, the probability is that it would have perished as time progressed and fashions changed as all similar organisations in Bristol did. A notable example of this is that of St. Mary of the Bellhouse, a similar but even more strongly established Society associated with St. Peter’s (City), an even older Church, and which possessed its own Chapel and Chantry Priest. In the case of the Society, however, as interest in the actual ringing of bells diminished and in social activities increased, it seems that by the end of the 17th Century the Society has become a “mixed” Society, i.e., composed of men who actually rang the bells and of others who did not do so. There is evidence that persons resident outside the parish and of superior social status were admitted to membership. This change was from some aspects not very commendable as during the 18th and for much of the 19th Centuries, the Society degenerated into what Past Master Roslyn describes as “a mere convivial company who, beyond observing various old customs at their gatherings, showed little concern either for the bells reverently rung by their predecessors or the Church from which they derived their name.”

Curiously enough, however, the conviviality and indeed, saturnalia, which during this period attended the annual festivities, traditionally held upon 17th November (The Accession day of Elizabeth I), apparently generated sufficient interest to keep the Society alive and prepared for the major change in its activities which was made in 1873 and which has been maintained ever since. At the annual dinner held in this year the rector, the Rev. F.F. Wayet, rebuked the company upon the degeneration of the Society and on the strength of this it was then and there decided that the Society should dedicate itself to the preservation of the Church and its precincts, primarily, but not necessarily completely, through the medium of an annual collection to be made by the Master.

The Society has been responsible for meeting the cost of many major works and very few have been undertaken to which it has not made a substantial contribution. As the Church is, in comparison with other City Churches in Bristol, poorly endowed, the assistance so afforded has been invaluable.

Notwithstanding this important reform, the Society, for many years following, lacked any administrative structure beyond that provided by its ancient ordinances. While the Master, Wardens and Warden-elect continued to be elected on 29th September every year pursuant to these (though not “between five and eight of the clock in the morning” as prescribed) there was little else in the ordinances which was not completely archaic. There was no Clerk and no register of members and indeed uncertainty prevailed as to who the members were. The fact that the Society both survived and prospered from 1873 to 1931 without such a structure is a fitting testimonial to the diligence and devotion of Ald. Jas. Fuller Eberle (Master 1887) who was the main-spring of the Society during most of this long period. The fine gateway giving access to the west door of the Church was erected by the Society as a memorial to this greatly loved and respected man.

In 1931 the absence of an administrative structure was remedied by the Master of the year, Mr. J.H.H Perks. After consultation with Past Master James Fuller Eberle, he submitted proposals to the subscribers for the removal of doubts as to the membership and as to its sub-division into Ringers and Colts (Apprentices) and for the amendment of the Ordinances. These were warmly welcomed and as a result of them, the objectives of the Society were re-stated, a Court comprising the Master, Wardens and Past Masters constituted as the governing body, a Clerk appointed and a register of members prepared. These were notable reforms, particularly as they did nothing to impair the Ancient Ordinances and the interest which they invariably create. Arising from these reforms the number of Ringers is limited to 100, exclusive of members of the Court, and of Colts to 40.

The Society’s main event, however, is its Annual Dinner held at the Red Lodge upon the Monday which is nearest to the Accession Day of Queen Elizabeth I (17th November). The attendance is limited to 109 for reasons of space. Whilst the dinner is no longer an occasion for the excesses which certainly characterised it in the past, the retention of many interesting customs such as handbell ringing, personal toasting of friends, the singing of old songs – sometimes impromptu – the reading of the Ordinances and the Procession of the Don (see footnote) makes it an interesting and lively occasion.

Note 1. "The History of the Antient Society of St. Stephen's Ringers Bristol" by H. E. Roslyn (Master 1932) was published privately by subscription in 1929. The author was a well-known Bristol journalist who was a recognised authority on Bristol history. In an author's note he acknowledges that he was encouraged to embark upon his task by Past Master James Fuller Eberle, whose long and invaluable service to the Society has already been mentioned.

This book is beautifully printed on hand made paper and is bound in vellum. Copies are not readily obtainable but may sometimes be found in Bristol book sales.

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